The Reclamation and Advancement of Civilization

Feb 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Bishop Henry B. Whipple

(This is Part 3 of a 3-part series in response to Bryan Fischer’s attack on ethnic religion)

“[The  history of the Indian] is one of neglect, wrong & robbery to call for the vengeance of God.” – Bishop Henry B. Whipple

It was intended that within fifty years the Santee would have become settled enough to be self-sufficient.  They had little choice in the matter: their annuity payments would run out then.  They were already making strides and despite the difficulties mentioned above, agents and superintendents were generally optimistic.  In his 1859 report Cullen (wrongly, as it turned out) predicted that in three years, Farmer Indians would outnumber the Blanket variety and that they were converting in numbers too great to be kept up with; he recommends increasing the clothing content of the next batch of annuity provisions.[1] By 1860, 118 families were “living in comfortable houses.”[2] Two years later, Galbraith says that construction of dwellings was under way, the work being done by department carpenters and the Santee themselves.  Though their crop for 1861 was, according to Galbraith, “almost totally destroyed by the Cut Worms,” that of 1862 was nearly bountiful enough to dissuade them from war and convince them of the efficacy of the white man’s ways.[3]

So much for the reports of agents and superintendents with a vested interest in the process of “improvement.”  An outsider, new to Minnesota and the Dakota, indeed, to Native Americans in general, was Edwin R. Lawton, a photographer’s assistant who arrived at the Upper Agency just days before the outbreak.  Being new and uninformed, his opinion might or might not carry weight; it is interesting nonetheless.  He was not impressed by what he saw, noting “there are comparatively exceedingly few who have accepted these offers.  An Indian deems it an eternal disgrace to be shorn of his hair and is looked upon as forfeiting his birthright to allow it to be done.”  Those who do allow it, he says, are called “white washed Indians” by their brothers.[4]

And the facts of the acculturation program?  It is documented that “up to the time of the outbreak, about one hundred and seventy-five Indian men had their hair cut, and had adopted the habits and customs of the white men.”[5] If the 100-man strong Soldiers Lodge was a minority, the “white washed Indians” were no less so.  It would seem our Lawton was a discerning fellow, given his brief association with the Dakota.

Despite halting progress, despite even the outbreak of war in August 1862, Commissioner Dole thought that the reservation policy was “(t)he best method yet devised for their reclamation and advancement in civilization.”  He admitted that the Native Americans on their reservations were ill treated by their white neighbors, who were guilty of many infractions, and that these burdens were “in the aggregate, exceedingly onerous and hard to be borne.”  Nor, as he points out, did they have redress to the legal system.  When justice is obtained, the resulting delays are, he says, “themselves cruel injustice.”[6]

Yet the authorities were ever quick to punish the Native Americans as a group for the wrongdoing of a few, to the extent of punishing the whole tribe for a single individual’s crime.  The events of 1857 when the Yanktonais and Inkpaduta killed white settlers were enough to convince all but the most ardently pro-white among them of that truth.  Even so, what Commissioner Dole hoped for was that the day would come when the Native Americans would have relations with the government “identical with those of the citizens of the various States.” He believed that to this end the States needed to cooperate more fully with the federal government.

There were those, however, who had their doubts even about the federal authorities. Henry B. Whipple was the first Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, elected in 1859 to serve that Diocese.  He had selected Faribault, a trading post, as his home in 1860 and exerted great energy in converting Minnesota’s native population to Christianity, earning him the name “St. John of the Wilderness.”  Each year he logged 3-4000 miles on the back of his horse “Bashaw,” whose endurance was legendary as its rider’s.

Did Whipple, like Fischer, condemn the Dakota to hellfires for defying his God? No. He was very concerned with the plight of the Dakota under white domination, and agreed with Dole in regards to the hostility of individual states, as he shows in a letter of 23 February 1861.  Here he says that they sold their land on the faith of the government and that their “whole history is one of neglect, wrong & robbery to call for the vengeance of God.”  He calls on the Secretary of the Interior to make appointments of decent men to the position of agent, reminding him that “Indian appointments are more liable to abuse than any in the Government” and that “the cry of the Indian will never be heard by you, his voice cannot reach his father in Washington.”[7]

It’s so much easier for bigots like Bryan Fischer to sit here, a century-and-a-half removed, and indulge in Old Testament wrath-making than to look at the “facts on the ground.”

If the Indian voice would not be heard in Washington, perhaps in Yellow Medicine.  Whipple wrote Galbraith a similar missive a short time later, once again decrying white mistreatment of the “Redman.”  This was a race, he wrote, “whose cry of wrong has for long years ascended unto God,” and there “are many reasons why we ought to help them.”  He deplores the way in which “whites have polluted his home, wife & daughters & blasted his home by the accursed fire water.”  Whipple is clearly perplexed by the problem: how is it that the English in Canada can so easily govern their Native American population without mishap?  How is it, he asks, the “English govt. have not had an Indian war in Canada this century? how is it we have a new one every year?”[8]

But it was a forlorn hope, as Whipple foresaw, for the Secretary’s appointees, Clark W. Thompson and Thomas J. Galbraith, whose share in the corruption of the Bureau of Indian Affairs will soon be discussed, were also without experience, despite claims to the contrary. In his 1861 report, he cited his qualifications:

A dozen years’ residence on the confines of the Indian country of The northwest; a careful study of the Indian customs, habits, Characters, and the means made use of to influence them.[9]

The appointment of an agent for the Ojibwe in 1858 serves as a case in point.  The Pioneer & Democrat of 16 February 1858 calls for Joseph W. Lynde to be appointed agent, as he “speaks their language and has resided among the Chippewa Indians for several years, thus acquiring a knowledge of their habits and wants.”  Instead, the paper moaned, Cyrus K. Drew of Indiana received the appointment, a man whom the paper surmises had “probably never seen an Indian” and whose sole qualification was being a native of Indiana.  As the paper sarcastically remarks, “After the ‘Ancient Dominion’ (Virginia), Hoosierdom is one of the greatest institutions in the land.”[10]

Against Galbraith worse charges than unfamiliarity have been filed in the court of history.  His reports indicate that he was diligent and perhaps well meaning, if not above profiting from his position, but the implication is that he leaned too heavily on the bottle, was too excitable and exacting, and could not understand his charges. His letters from the crucial period of August 1862 suggest that all of these criticisms may be true.  His tone is hysterical and he seems more concerned about his own position than that of the frontier or of his charges.[11]

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Even Thompson did not escape blame for the disaster that befell the frontier, though the agents and superintendents were merely symptoms of the cancer that dwelt in Washington.  Jane Gray Swisshelm reports meeting Thompson at a party in early 1863:

In one of the halls I almost ran against our jolly friend, Superintendent Thompson, on whose broad shoulders philanthropists says so many of the Indian murders rest.  To be such a terrible criminal, he appears to have a very good conscience and does not get thin.[12]

Good conscience or not, events were to catch up to Clark W. Thompson.  Fourteen years later, a brief article appears in a paper as remote as the Bismarck Tribune:

The authorities are after Clark Thompson, who entered                upon the duties of Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a few years ago a poor man, but five years later was rated at half a million. They have sued his bondsmen for $10,262.27 with interest for ten years. The sureties are Morton S. Wilkinson, Henry M. Rice and Geo. L. Becker, of Minnesota.[13]

“The Indians,” Commissioner Dole said, echoing Manypenny, “are capable of attaining a high degree of civilization.” He seems to consider the outbreak of the Dakota War a result of anti-Native American feeling among the whites and the lateness of the annuity payments, though he allows, “not having the reports of Galbraith and Thompson to hand, other causes might come to light.”[14] Galbraith, for his part, was clear as to at least one thing: it was not his fault:

That the Indians have been wronged and cheated by white men  is doubtless true (but) this whole series of lies about the speculation in the annuity funds of the Sioux is nothing more nor less than the emanations from the brains of persons who have measured the Sioux agent by their own standing…and have expressed what they would have done had they but had the opportunity.

The Indian being cheated as “the cause” of the outbreak is in his “humble opinion, simply puerile, shallow, and silly.”[15]

Thompson was much closer to the scene than Dole and not as confident as his superior, and records show him to be, whatever his failings, a much more discerning and open-minded observer than Galbraith.  He expressed his own surprise at seeing the Santee firsthand in his report for 1861.  The experience was a revelation.  Here he says, “Theories and experience are two very different matters” and suggests that “one week’s actual residence with the Indians is usually enough to eradicate nearly all preconceived notions and theories from a thinking mind.”  His opinion was that no report or description that could be read from behind a desk could do justice to the actual situation of these people.[16]

Advice Bryan Fischer should heed.

In the end, after to many struggles and untold death and suffering in the name of civilization, the final blow to community ownership was the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) of 1887, which officially turned all Native Americans into U.S. citizens.[17] But neither the spoken word, nor the written, have the power to change facts, and the facts are that the reservation system was a failure; it succeeded in destroying Native American culture; it did not succeed in turning the Red man into white.  Instead, it created poverty, despair, hunger, and a very real sense that white civilization was to be fought, and not a few who had tasted reservation life opted for the free and open plains instead, at least while such freedom was to be found.

Images from the Minnesota Historical Society


[1] RCIA (1859), 53. Report of W.J. Cullen dated 15 September 1859.

[2] RCIA (1860), 55. Report of J.R. Brown dated 25 October 1860.

[3] Ibid., Galbraith to Thompson, 15 August 1861. Holcombe, ed. “Big Eagle’s Account,” 26. RCIA (1863), 272. Agent Galbraith’s report for 1862.  See also Pioneer & Democrat of 23 July 1862 on expected crop for that year.

[4]  Lawton Diary. Entry of 14 August 1862. Lawton’s first impression was completely opposite that of Superintendent Thompson on his first visit: “I was much surprised to find so many of the Sioux Indians wearing the garb of civilization…” (RCIA (1861), 70. Report of C.W. Thompson dated 30 October 1861).

[5] RCIA (1863), 284. Report of T.J. Galbraith dated 27 January 1863.

[6] RCIA (1862), 80-81.

[7] Letters Received, Whipple to Secretary of the Interior, 23 February 1861. For biographical information on Whipple see The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York, 1892), IV:58. See Appendix B for the full text of Whipple’s letter.

[8] Minnesota Historical Society. Bishop Henry B. Whipple Papers.  Whipple to Galbraith, 15 April 1861.

[9] RCIA (1861), 80. Report of T.J. Galbraith dated 1 October 1861.

[10] Pioneer & Democrat, 16 February 1858. By May, it was learned that rew was to be agent for the Chippewa of Lake Superior and Lynde agent for the Chippewa of the Mississippi.  See Ibid., 9 May 1858.

[11] Russo, 100. She calls Galbraith “inept” and blames him and the traders for the outbreak. Duane Schultz calls him “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.” (Over the Earth I Come, [NY, 1992], 11)

[12] Swisshelm, 168.

[13] Bismarck Tribune, 12 January 1876.

[14] RCIA (1862), 80-81. Galbraith’s report for 1862 was delayed until 1863 because of the Dakota War.

[15] RCIA (1863), 284. Report of Thomas Galbraith to Clark W. Thompson, dated 27 January 1863. Emphasis in the original.

[16] RCIA (1861), 73. Report of C.W. Thompson dated 30 October 1861.

[17]  See Prucha, Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln, 1990), 171.

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